60% drop in STEM student satisfaction after switch to online learning

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  • 85% surveyed say their satisfaction with teaching has decreased after the switch to online learning.
  • Overall, student satisfaction with teaching dropped by 50%. STEM students’ satisfaction dropped by 60%.
  • Students cite lack of access to labs, the ‘dumbing down’ of content in order to teach it online, and the difficulty of participating in group discussion over Zoom.

The 2020-2021 academic year has forced universities to move their curricula online, as successive lockdowns in the UK prevented students from traveling or gathering in groups. Palatinate Science & Technology conducted an investigation into Durham student satisfaction with online teaching.

It aimed to find out whether the online or ‘blended’ (a mixture of online and in-person) teaching being offered by Durham University this year is a comparable substitute for in-person teaching.

The results showed that overall, student satisfaction with teaching dropped by 50%. However, there were stark differences between subjects.

The satisfaction of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) students dropped by 60%. Arts and humanities students’ satisfaction dropped by 20%. It should also be noted that STEM students made up a large proportion of the sample (86%).

66% said their satisfaction with teaching has significantly decreased since the switch to online learning. 100% of this group were STEM students.

19% said their satisfaction has somewhat decreased.

Overall, student satisfaction with teaching dropped by 50%

The average (mode) rating of teaching satisfaction before the switch to online learning was 8/10. The average (mode) rating of teaching satisfaction after the switch to online learning was 3/10.

All students cited the difficulty of participating in discussions over Zoom, and the fact that pre-recorded lectures are often not uploaded at the scheduled time as reasons for their decreased satisfaction with teaching.

However, the most common concern was specific to STEM students. The lack of access to laboratories and subject-specific technical equipment, and the ‘dumbing down’ of content in order to teach it online means many feel they have not learnt the skills necessary to pursue careers or post-graduate degrees in research.

The average rating of satisfaction with teaching was 3/10

They highlighted the fact that practical work is critical to learning the scientific process. It teaches students methods of gathering primary data, how to design and conduct an experiment and how to use technical equipment. While students did not blame lecturers or Durham University for the situation, they strongly felt that the quality of their teaching has been reduced, and that online teaching for STEM courses is not a comparable substitute for in-person teaching.

6% of respondents said their satisfaction with teaching has slightly increased since the switch to online learning. Reasons for this include the ability to watch lectures at a time and speed that suits the individual, and a greater focus on the teaching of software- based skills, which students feel will be more important in the future.


Alongside rating their satisfaction with teaching before and after the switch to online learning, we asked students to answer the following question:

“Do you think the teaching of subject-specific skills has been well adapted for online learning?

  • Lectures are well adapted to an online format and allow for greater flexibility.
  • The teaching of experimental skills has been poorly adapted to an online format.
  • Some departments have provided technical equipment for at-home use.

No, not at all. (14 responses)

I feel I am not as skilled as I would have been, because content has been “dumbed down” so it can be taught with limited resources online. (Geography)

We have been left in the dark when it comes to how we will complete summative work based around practical learning. (Biology)

The lecturers are doing their best but ‘virtual practicals’ is a contradiction in terms. I want to do postgraduate research and need in-person practical experience in order to advance to this level. (Natural Sciences)

People do not engage in online seminars. I am disappointed with the quality of teaching. (English)

Yes, the department has adapted well to teaching software-based skills online. But not at all well to the teaching of fieldwork techniques. There has been no substitute at all for these. (Geography)

The maths department providing all students with drawing tablets was really helpful. (Maths)

They’ve adapted as best they could, but unfortunately lab work is impossible to teach online. (Engineering)

Overall, yes! There’s a lot of good that’s come from teaching online, such as the ability to speed up/rewind lectures. (Maths)

Lots of lectures don’t have a scheduled time for upload, or they are uploaded late, which can make it hard to establish a routine. (English)

Being sent lab equipment at home was a really good idea. (Natural Sciences)

I feel discouraged from asking questions because there are so few opportunities to talk to lecturers, and emails are often ignored. (Psychology)

Not all modules have provided videos of experiments. It is hard to interpret methodology from just text. (Biology)

Not too much needs to change for a humanities student, and lecturers have adapted well to delivering lectures online. (English and Philosophy)

The figures in this article are based on 115 responses collected by Durham students from Durham students over a period of 4 days by Durham Polling.

To supplement these findings, we asked students across a variety of STEM subjects to write short statements about learning science online at Durham University. You can read them here.

Image: Studio Libeskind for Durham University

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